A garden grows at our elementary school.
It’s what you might expect: Students plant broccoli and squash, kale and peppers, cucumbers, melons and other veggies they start from seed. They develop a love of nature, learn math and science by doing, and experience the rewards of cooperation, patience and respect. But students at Woodland Elementary West in Gages Lake, Ill., are doing something even more.
They’re improving the lives of neighbors in need.
Over the past nine years, their seed-to-harvest garden has given more than 3,800 pounds of vegetables to the local food pantry. That’s enough to help make 11,000 meals for hungry people. Donating the fruits of their labor has taught them a most valuable lesson: Working together, they can change their community. You might think this concept lost on our first-, second- and third-grade students. But I can tell you, it is not.
It’s clear in the way they proudly march seedlings grown in the classroom to the 60-by-90-foot garden in late May. How they carefully dig holes, settle their seedlings, tamp down the soil, and water the plants. It’s in their excited voices as they compare seedlings with classmates, and how they caution friends not to trample the newly planted. They know these baby plants are destined for great things.
The garden is “awesome” says a second-grade boy planting tomatoes. Why? “Because we can eat it,” he smiles.
“We’re growing tomatoes for people who can’t buy them in the store,” says his classmate.
“I think it’s nice that we’re helping other people,” says a young gardener in pink. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” shouts her friend in agreement. “This is fun.”
Some students come with families and scout groups over the summer to water and weed the garden. Municipalities, businesses and the school help with big maintenance projects and donate needed supplies. Many in the community come together to make the project happen.
When students return from break in late August, the garden is in its full glory. They can’t wait to see how big the zucchini plants have gotten or how tall the sunflowers. We create a time lapse video so students can watch the garden grow again and again.
They harvest carrots and tomatillos, Swiss chard and eggplant for the food pantry. The children enjoy tasting their veggies, too. In fact, research shows children are more likely to eat a vegetable if they’ve grown it themselves. I’ve seen kids eat tomatoes for the first time only because they grew a cherry variety in class and friends are gobbling up the juicy red orbs like candy. Peer pressure does have its benefits!
Herbs are a favorite and it’s not uncommon to see students with chives or mint leaves hanging from their mouths, or inhaling the fragrance of basil or thyme. With juvenile diabetes and childhood obesity on the rise, learning healthy eating habits by eating what we grow has never been a more important lesson. For most students, working in the school garden is their first opportunity to sow seeds, plant a seedling, or pick and taste home-grown produce. It’s a chance to spend time outdoors and learn how nature works.
Many of us learned to love gardening at a young age because someone – a parent or grandparent, neighbor or maybe even a school garden volunteer – taught us how. Once children experience the wonders of the garden, they’re more than willing to get their hands dirty and make a real difference.